SEO vs SEM: Which Is Better for Your Online Business

Search engines play a major role in helping people find relevant information to make informed decisions.

This gives business owners an opportunity to leverage search engines and convey their message to the intended audience. You can do this through search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM), which combines SEO with pay-per-click advertising.

In this article, we will highlight the key differences between SEO vs SEM to help you choose the best strategy to grow your business.

What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to improving your website by following the search engine guidelines to score better rankings than your competition. This is a non-paid method of gaining more visibility for your brand through search engines – 67% of users only check out the top five search results.

Generally speaking, you create content around the queries that align with your niche and optimize it.

However, you are not the only one targeting queries that best represent the interests of your target audience. Your competitors do the same. So, the goal is to outmaneuver your competitors and be at the top of search engine recommendations.

In other words, climbing the search engine rankings is key to driving more organic traffic to your website.

Let’s go over some tips for improving your SEO:

Select the Right Keywords

Before creating content, you should select the right keywords that best represent the needs and preferences of your target audience.

This requires you to do keyword research to explore words or longer phrases that your audience uses to find relevant information through search engines.

You can consider leveraging free keyword research tools or premium solutions like Semrush or AIOSEO to find keywords worth targeting.

When starting, consider looking for long-tail keywords, as they are usually easier to rank for. To illustrate, if we take the best web hosting service keyword, the tool shows that it takes a lot of work to rank for it. 

The best web hosting service keyword overview on Semrush

As a result, we recommend targeting less popular keywords like the best hosting for freelancers.

On-Page Optimization

Besides selecting the right keywords, you should know how to use them in your content to top the search engine ranking charts.

This is where the on-page optimization process starts to provide visitors with a seamless user experience and create content that best serves their search intent.

This requires you to understand what information people want to find when they use certain keywords to explore search engines.

To illustrate, if someone uses the search query what is web hosting?, it means they want to learn about web hosting

In this case, we recommend beginning your page with a thorough explanation instead of pricing and additional features.

When we google "what is web hosting", we get Hostinger's article explaining what is web hosting for beginners

However, users searching for the web hosting service already know what web hosting is, and now they are interested in exploring the best web hosting options or solution providers.

When we google "web hosting service", we get PC Magazine's article reviewing web hosting services and Hostinger's page offering to buy web hosting services.

Apart from catering to the intent, on-page optimization requires efficient use and strategic placement of the focus keywords in your content, page URLs, titles, descriptions, and images.

This helps you offer a seamless experience to your visitors, which in turn boosts your search engine rankings.

Off-Page Optimization

As the name gives it away, off-page SEO refers to your actions outside the website to help it rank higher on search engines. These include:

  • Social media – create and share relevant content with your target audience.
  • Branded searches – leverage social proof and encourage ratings or reviews for your products or services.
  • Quality backlinks – ask for other website owners to link to your site. One of the best ways to do so is by offering to write a guest post.

We recommend paying the most attention to high-quality backlinks since they have a significant impact on your search engine rankings. In fact, 91% of websites don’t get any organic traffic from Google due to the absence of quality backlinks. 

Technical Optimization

Technical optimization enables search engine bots to locate and crawl your content easily. As a result, your website pages get indexed more quickly.

Technical SEO helps search engines understand your website structure and content hierarchy to determine your capability to offer an excellent user experience.

Make sure that you are not preventing search engines from crawling your website to help them assess your pages for suitable rankings.

What Is SEM?

Search engine marketing encompasses search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising (PPC).

Since we have already covered the SEO basics, let’s talk about the other constituent of search engine marketing – PPC.

Pay-per-click advertising refers to leveraging third-party platforms like search engines to generate traction and attract a relevant audience.

Basically, you pay to be at the top of search engine recommendations with the Sponsored disclaimer.

Hostinger's Web Hosting page on Google search results with the Sponsored disclaimer

Then, each time a user clicks on the sponsored content, the company pays the ad publisher an agreed amount.

As pay-per-click advertising generates results quicker than organic marketing, businesses often use it to achieve short-term goals.

Let’s go over the essential components of PPC to learn more about search engine marketing.

Keyword Research

To get started with pay-per-click advertising, it’s essential to identify the keywords that can help you achieve your goals.

Most of the time, businesses choose PPC to fuel their revenue. This means they are likely to go for queries with commercial or transactional intents to get a better return on investment from their ad campaigns.

On the other hand, you can also leverage pay-per-click advertising for other goals, like generating awareness about your brand. However, it might be too costly.

No matter what your goal is, using keyword research tools can come in handy, as they help you estimate the average traffic volume when targeting a particular query.

In addition, these tools may also help you estimate the average cost per click, which is usually between $2-4 for a standard search ad campaign. As a result, if you see a higher amount of money, we recommend considering going for another keyword.

The web hosting service keyword overview on Semrush

This information is essential for you to come up with a high-performing PPC ad campaign. Remember that the goal is to target relevant yet high-volume keywords, representing less competition and minimal cost per click.


Once you have identified relevant keywords for your PPC ad campaign, the next step is to come up with a bidding strategy.

Bidding is like a negotiation with search engines. You decide the amount you are willing to pay ad publishers or search engines each time a user clicks on the sponsored content.

Note that if your ads are similar to your competitors in terms of quality and they outbid you, search engines will prefer displaying their content.

As a result, your ads may underperform due to not enough people clicking on them.

Ad Copy

Once you have developed an efficient bidding strategy, start focusing on creating well-thought-out ad copy.

An ad copy is the message your target audience sees the moment they stumble upon the sponsored content.

Remember that even if you outbid your competitors and make search engines display your ads, it’s your copy that inspires your audience to click and consider exploring the information you want them to.

Audience Targeting

Even after identifying the right keywords, coming up with a high-performing bidding strategy, and creating inspiring ad copy, your ads might still underperform if they’re not displayed to the right people.

To avoid this, you have to decide on an audience you want to attract through pay-per-click advertising.

You can target a particular audience based on different characteristics such as demographics, interests, locality, buying preferences, and more.

The goal here is to display your ads to people interested in your offer since they will likely click on the sponsored content.

Key Differences Between SEO vs SEM

As said earlier, SEM encompasses SEO and pay-per-click advertising. Since search engine optimization is a part of search engine marketing, that leaves pay-per-click advertising.

The following are a few differences worth considering before deciding on the marketing strategy for your business:

Content vs Budget

Search engine optimization relies on your content quality, whereas pay-per-click advertising is a budget-oriented strategy.

When you want to generate traction organically, you have to create content around relevant queries and optimize it as per the search engine guidelines.

This is how you attract the right audience and make them consider visiting your website to explore more information.

On the other hand, your budget governs your pay-per-click ad campaigns.

This is one of the reasons why small businesses stick to creating useful content for their audience to get better search engine visibility.

Since they have a more limited budget, it’s nearly impossible for them to compete against industry giants. In addition, they can speed up their content creation processes with free AI SEO tools.

Perpetuity vs Quickness

Another thing distinguishing search engine optimization from pay-per-click advertising is the results you get from both.

As said earlier, search engine optimization requires you to produce relevant and high-quality content to get the desired results.

Once you have created and published your content, you may not achieve the desired results quickly. It takes time for search engines to crawl and assess your content to determine the suitable rankings for your pages.

As a result, SEO requires you to be consistent and patient to see your efforts translate into the desired outcome.

This is not the case with pay-per-click advertising. PPC makes it possible for you to get quick results from your efforts.

You don’t have to wait for search engine bots to crawl your pages to display your ads. The moment your campaign is live, you start seeing results almost instantly.

This is why businesses often prefer PPC to achieve their short-term goals. In addition, it’s a great solution when you want to capitalize on a hot trend or speed up your lead generation process.

User Intent

Search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising also differ depending on the intent.

Intent reflects users’ behavior when they use a particular query to explore search engines for relevant information.

In general, there are four main types of search intent:

  • Informational – users want to learn more about a particular topic.
  • Navigational – users start looking for more information sources.
  • Commercial – users consider purchasing a product or service, but they haven’t made the final decision.
  • Transactional – users are ready to purchase.

Search engine optimization caters to all these intents. With it, you can help people find relevant information, generate awareness about your brand, and capture quality leads for your sales funnel.

On the other hand, pay-per-click advertising generally caters to commercial or transactional intent. Using it, you pay search engines to help you showcase the capabilities of the solutions you offer and attract a relevant audience.


The results of your search engine optimization efforts and pay-per-click advertising are drastically different.

Search engine optimization may take some time to get you promising results. However, an SEO-friendly website has a lasting impact compared to pay-per-click advertising.

When you drive traffic to your website organically, you nurture the leads step by step. You educate your target audience and help them make informed buying decisions. This way, you earn their trust and foster thought leadership in your respective industry.

People start considering you as a reliable source of information and keep coming back to you for more.

Pay-per-click advertising, on the other hand, works differently. You often target people who have already made up their minds about buying something. You just reach out to them and pitch your solutions so they consider you among other alternatives.

Also, in terms of traction, the impact of your paid ad campaigns is short-term. The moment you pull the plug on your ads, the results that you were seeing will be gone.

Hostinger web hosting banner


There you have it – the key differences between SEO and SEM. The article covered each concept in great detail to help you understand the terms and choose what’s right for you, especially when you have just gotten started.

Remember that neither of the strategies trumps the other in terms of effectiveness. It’s all a matter of your preferences and goals. To recap:

  • Search engine optimization – a long-term strategy that requires more effort and time as you need to create and optimize your content. On the other hand, it is a budget-friendly option.
  • Search engine marketing – a short-term strategy that gives you instant results and doesn’t require much time to prepare. However, it might be very expensive.

To get the best results and experience better search engine visibility, we recommend going for search engine marketing, as it encompasses both SEO and PPC.

The author

Benjamin Rojas

Benjamin Rojas is the President of All in One SEO. He has been making websites and WordPress plugins for the last two decades, and specializes in SEO, eCommerce, and cloud computing. His code is helping power over 10,000,000 websites. Follow him on LinkedIn